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India's new PM Modi slams rape shame, communal violence

Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned a spate of rapes as a source of shame for India and urged an end to communal violence on Friday (Aug 15) as he vowed to improve the lives of the nation's poor in his first Independence Day speech.

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned a spate of rapes as a source of shame for India and urged an end to communal violence on Friday (Aug 15) as he vowed to improve the lives of the nation's poor in his first Independence Day speech.

Modi, the son of a tea vendor who come to power in May, also delivered a withering assessment of the ruling establishment from the ramparts of New Delhi's 17th-century Red Fort as he addressed often taboo subjects such as sexual violence, foeticide, religious unrest and a lack of toilets. The right-wing Hindu nationalist also restated his solidarity with the wider South Asian region but held back from mentioning India's nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, which marked on Thursday (Aug 14) its independence from Britain 68 years ago.

In one of the most eye-catching passages of a 45-minute speech, Modi said levels of rape had shamed India, and urged parents to take responsibility for behaviour of their sons rather than put the onus on their daughters.

"When we hear about these rapes our heads hang in shame," Modi said.

"The law will take its own course but as a society every parent has a responsibility to teach their sons the difference between right and wrong."

Anger over sexual violence has been rising in the last two years, fuelled by a series of high-profile assaults including the fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in Delhi in December 2012.

The victim's father, who cannot be named for legal reasons, welcomed Modi's comments.

"No one says a thing to boys who commit atrocities against women but they are quick to say the mistake must be the girl's. Modi has sent out a very good message," he told NDTV network.

There was also widespread outrage in May when two teenagers were found hanging from a mango tree after being gang-raped in Uttar Pradesh. The girls, aged 14 and 15, were attacked while going to the toilet in fields after dark as - like hundreds of millions of Indians - they did not have a toilet in their home.

"We are in the 21st century and yet there is still no dignity for women as they have to go out in the open to defecate and they have to wait for darkness to fall. Can you imagine the number of problems they have to face because of this?" Modi asked assembled VIPs.

Modi said India should strive to ensure every household has a toilet within the next four years and pledged to ensure all schools had separate toilets for girls and boys to encourage female education.

The prime minister also called for a change in mindset in a country where a baby boy is still sometimes seen as more of a blessing than a girl - particularly in rural areas.

‘DON’T SACRIFICE DAUGHTERS’

Despite laws banning parents from finding out the sex of their unborn child, Modi noted only 940 girls were being born for every 1,000 boys.

"Who is responsible for this imbalance in our society? I urge the doctors and mothers not to sacrifice their daughters for sons," he said.

Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, has also been the scene of several recent flare-ups in communal violence between Hindus and minority Muslims.

Before becoming premier, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state where he was in charge in 2002 during one of independent India's deadliest chapters of religious violence. But in his speech, Modi said communal violence was "stalling the growth of the nation" and had gone on for "too long".

While Modi has been accused of being too pro-business, he vowed to enable the poorest of society to open bank accounts and blamed a surge in suicides among farmers on their inability to pay back money-lenders.

"We will have a prime minister's people wealth scheme so even the poorest of the poor can have a bank account of their own," he said.

The new premier also announced the central planning commission, which under previous governments drew up Soviet-style five-year economic plans, would be axed. He proposed "to take India forward" with a new institution that will have "a new soul, a new thinking, a new direction... based on creative thinking."

"Today it seemed as though Modi was trying to silence his critics because after he took charge, people started tagging him as a mute prime minister, not taking action," K.G. Suresh, a fellow at New Delhi's Vivekanand International Foundation think-tank, told AFP.

"But he dispelled that in his speech. Modi was in his element," he said.

Initial political reaction to his speech was also largely positive.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior figure in the former ruling Congress party, praised "an inclusive, harmonious" speech.

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